BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – A recent article in Governing magazine reported growing implementation of bus rapid transit (BRT) projects around the country. Some of this is occurring in mid-size metro areas such as Hartford, Jacksonville, and Nashville, while other projects are being implemented in cities with mature transit systems, including Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

New York already has three BRT lines and another three in the planning stages; it eventually aims to have 16 of them. (

In July the GAO produced a very useful study on the subject: “Bus Rapid Transit: Projects Improve Transit Service and Can Contribute to Economic Development” (GAO-12-811). The GAO analysts studied 20 BRT projects completed since 2005.

Most of these were what some dub “BRT-Lite,” in that they do not make use of exclusive lanes or fancy stations. But thanks to omitting those costly features, nearly all of these projects cost far less than either a “BRT-Heavy” project or a light-rail or streetcar alternative. And despite lacking those features, most of the 20 projects produced significant (from 20% to 80%) gains in ridership and significant travel-time savings (15% to 35%).

The Federal Transit Administration provides grant funding for BRT under both its New Starts and Small Starts programs. Although it’s widely believed that to qualify for the larger grants available from New Starts a BRT project must have a separate right-of-way for a “substantial” portion of its distance (at least during peak periods), that is not actually the case, GAO points out. A BRT project can still qualify if it “represents a substantial investment in a defined corridor as demonstrated by features such as park-and-ride lots, transit stations, bus arrival and departure signage, intelligent transportation systems technology, traffic signal priority, off-board fare collection, advanced bus technology, and other features that support long-term corridor investment.”

Those are worthwhile features, and it’s good to see that FTA is not insisting on exclusive lanes, which in most cases are neither politically nor operationally feasible, due to the large negative impact on traffic congestion if an existing lane is converted to bus-only.

Is an exclusive bus lane a feature or a bug? Proponents argue that a community will only gain economic development benefits from BRT if it is seen as permanent, just like a rail line. But the opposing view sees the flexibility of BRT as a virtue, both tactically and strategically. In the short term, as GAO notes, if trouble occurs on the roadway (major accident, temporary street closure, etc.), a BRT vehicle can route around it, which a rail vehicle cannot do. Longer term, the fact is that cities evolve, and land-use patterns change. A transit system based on buses, including BRT, has the flexibility to adapt to such changes at low cost, compared with rail transit.

What still irks me about most BRT reports (including this one) is the short shrift they give to the synergy between priced lanes and BRT. For BRT-Heavy, which tends to be used for longer trips (including region-wide express service), a network of priced managed lanes on the freeway system provides the virtual equivalent of exclusive bus lanes. And what my colleagues and I have dubbed Managed Arterials (electronically tolled bypasses of signalized intersections) can do the same for BRT-Heavy on major arterials. The Reason Foundation’s 2012 Southeast Florida mobility study laid out an integrated plan for BRT-Lite on many arterials and BRT-Heavy on a network of managed lanes and managed arterials.

BRT is a good idea, but it can be even more effective if coupled with priced lanes and flyovers.

SOURCE: Robert Poole. Reason Foundation, 10/16/12